Iron fist in a velvet glove

Chorale’s first rehearsal with Nicholas Kraemer was very exhilarating and exciting. The singers were prepared, and on their best behavior: they arrived on time, they uncrossed their legs and sat up straight, they watched the conductor, they shone with enthusiasm. This must have been very gratifying for Mr. Kraemer—he had just arrived from London, and announced his jet lag, apologizing in advance for any shortness of temper he might display (there was none). Throughout the afternoon, watching and listening to Mr. Kraemer rehearse, I repeatedly thought of a phrase I first heard in a master class with soprano Elly Ameling and pianist Dalton Baldwin, more than thirty years ago: “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Referring specifically to a song by Gabriel Fauré, Ms. Ameling warned a singer not to give into his feelings, to his romantic impulses, but to submit them to the rule of the tempo, the pulse. She told us that the truth of Fauré’s musical language lies in the tension between these two poles: the unwavering firmness of his forward movement, and the emotion expressed through his harmonies and melodies.

I often use this phrase, and principle, when rehearsing Chorale. We all feel the beauty and emotional satisfaction inherent in the music we perform; but we can’t afford to skip, or even skimp on, establishing what I call “the grid”: the pitches, up and down, and the rhythms, from here to there. Chorale members spend an amazing amount of time nailing down pitches and rhythms, both on their own time and in group rehearsal. I do my best to let nothing slide, to correct every error, to clarify each rhythmic subdivision—I always imagine some bright music student taking dictation, and try to produce something he can hear and transcribe. I remember very well a phrase Harry Keuper used in describing Robert Shaw’s nagging perfectionism: “toilet trained at the point of a gun;” and I wonder if my singers say something similar, of me.

To some extent, I have become this way out of a desire to overcome my own unbridled feelings and impulses when enjoying music. Elly Ameling was speaking to me; and years of studying and performing with Dalton Baldwin, Robert Shaw, and Helmuth Rilling have developed a hyper-awareness in me of the many ways there are to indulge oneself and get off track. But I also realize on my own, that when a large group of singers gets together, they can very easily become an amoeba, spreading formlessly all over the place and leaving structure and coherence behind, no matter how much they love what they are doing, no matter how good they feel about themselves. Yet I am on guard that I not suppress the wit, style, and life of the music-- the velvet glove-- in order to keep the amoeba corralled. Fauré’s music needs work with a metronome; it also needs acknowledgement and nurturing of its silk and velvet soul.

As does Mozart's. Just a couple of weeks ago, I said to Chorale, “I am trying hard to balance the iron fist with the velvet glove, trying to make the most efficient choices, in preparing you for what Mr. Kraemer will bring to this performance.” And when push came to shove, I chose the fist. The grid.   During our conductor’s piano rehearsal, I witnessed Mr. Kraemer slide his velvet glove onto the fist I had prepared, listened to him smooth the rougher edges, sand down the sharper articulations, enliven the gnarlier passages over which we had slaved in establishing clarity—and I was envious. I wanted to enjoy, myself, breathing life and style into this music, stroking its velvet surface. So much like losing control of your child as she goes off into the world, hoping you have chosen to emphasize the right lessons, established the iron fist within but at least hinted at the promise, the beauty, of that velvet glove.

Our Mozart Mass in C minor now belongs to Nicholas Kraemer. Please come and hear what he does with it!